Tort report: Va. a ‘sucker,’ Md. a ‘sinner’

Voters in the Potomac region recently cast their ballots, but the presidential primary is not the only contest worthy of note. The race to create the most efficient state legal system reveals a few winners and many losers.
A comparison of Virginia and Maryland makes that distinction clear, and the region is an interesting place when it comes to lawsuits. Take, for example, the most outrageous lawsuit of 2007.

It involved a Washington, D.C., administrative judge who sued his neighborhood dry cleaner for $54 million over a lost pair of pants. The details of the trouser trial are not characteristic of most lawsuits in the region, but lawsuit abuse in Virginia and Maryland still occurs, albeit often in less visible ways. There is a lot of variation, but when it comes to tort costs, Virginians surely are ahead of the curve.

The U.S. Tort Liability Index: 2008 Report, a new study from the Pacific Research Institute, finds that Virginia has the lowest relative total tort costs in the nation and tort costs for commercial self-insurance are lower than in any state. This is not the case across the board, though. The PRI report reveals that tort costs for product liability and medical malpractice could be improved. Maryland, in contrast, could stand improvement in all tort costs.

Maryland ranks 31st in tort costs — nowhere near Virginia. Even where Virginia performs poorest, in costs for product liability and medical malpractice, its costs remain lower than in Maryland. But these costs should not be seen as a product of random chance.

A lot goes into influencing them, including the tort laws on the books. While each state has its problem areas, not all states are actively pursuing meaningful tort reform. In this area, legislators in both Virginia and Maryland could use some scolding.

Virginia ranks 38th in the nation in regard to its tort laws currently on the books. The state has some effective reforms, such as the $350,000 cap it allows juries to award in punitive damages.

But it is also clear that the Virginia legislature has been naively assuming that low current tort costs mean invulnerability to predatory personal-injury lawyers. Only one of the 28 laws tracked in the PRI study has been reformed in Virginia in the past two years. For this, the report categorizes Virginia a “sucker” state — it is resting on its laurels and in no position to prevent an increase in future lawsuit abuse. But Maryland makes Virginia look good by comparison.

Maryland ranks a lowly 47th out of the 50 states with regard to current tort laws. Not only has the state reformed only one of the tracked laws, but it also has many more weak areas than Virginia.

Maryland ranks dead last in an astounding 15 of the 28 laws that the report tracks. For willfully neglecting its obligation to create a more fair and efficient legal system, the PRI report categorizes Maryland as a “sinner.”

One glaring threat to Virginia is the number of civil cases filed in the state. After controlling for population, the most recent data show Virginia with the second-highest case-filing rate in the nation.

Despite its respectable ranking and superiority to Maryland’s civil-justice system, trouble may be looming for Virginia due to its disinterest in tort reform. If trends continue, the state might want to change its motto to “Virginia is for lawyers.”

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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